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Published: Thursday, 10/29/2009

Sidelines: TAAC champion Northwood seeks playoff spot

BY STEVE JUNGA
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Sure, the formula is the same from year to year. But sometimes the same numbers don't get the same results.

Call it grading on a curve, and 24th-year head coach Ken James and his Northwood Rangers know all about it.

For instance, the Rangers earned an 80 percent score (8-2 record) in 2007, and bumped it up to 90 percent (9-1) last year. But neither time was this good enough for Northwood to earn a passing grade when it came to the Division V playoffs.

This season, however, a rebuilt Northwood squad — one that absorbed significant losses to graduation while at the same time tackling a heavier course load (stronger schedule) — has a solid shot at a passing mark for D-V postseason play if it finishes at just 70 percent (7-3).

The Rangers (6-3) clinched a share of their third straight Toledo Area Athletic Conference title with a convincing 38-11 win over Toledo Christian. Tomorrow they look to make it an outright championship at 6-0 in TAAC play in their regular-season finale at home against Cardinal Stritch (1-8, 1-4).

If they win, James and his Rangers can start scanning the Internet for results of games elsewhere in Ohio to see if they make the playoffs.

Being a D-V school with an enrollment barely above the D-VI cutoff, Northwood's predominantly D-VI schedule within the TAAC leaves little margin for error in terms of compiling computer points.

The playoffs were likely the farthest thing from the minds of James, his coaching staff, and the young Rangers at midseason.

At that point, losses to Lakota(26-0), Hopewell-Loudon (41-22) and Genoa (48-6) had Northwood at 2-3.

“It took a while to figure out who fit best, and where the pieces of the puzzle would go,” James said. “We've shifted some guys into different spots, from linebacker to defensive line, or to different spots on the offensive line. Halfbacks went to fullback, running backs to wideouts.

LEFT: Northwood quarterback Erik Russell has thrown for 396 yards and five touchdowns, while running for seven TDs. RIGHT: Jake Pressley (382 yards rushing, five TDs) stiff arms Toledo Christian's Luke Sims. LEFT: Northwood quarterback Erik Russell has thrown for 396 yards and five touchdowns, while running for seven TDs. RIGHT: Jake Pressley (382 yards rushing, five TDs) stiff arms Toledo Christian's Luke Sims.
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“Once we got settled in and the kids got comfortable in their roles, we started to get better.”

Four weeks and four convincing TAAC wins later, the Rangers seem to have hit stride and appear to be the favorite to outpoint other Region 18 playoff hopefuls that have only the slimmest chance of qualifying. In fact, barring a rash of upsets, Northwood could actually lose and still qualify, provided that favored Leipsic tops Liberty-Benton.

That's the good news for Northwood. The bad news is, unless the Rangers climb above the No. 8 slot, they would have to travel to Patrick Henry to take on the Patriots (9-0), Ohio's top-ranked D-V team.

But, regardless of the long odds, it is matchups like this that James has sought to elevate the strength of his program and to test his promising group for future seasons.

“It's been a difficult schedule with some teams with good records and some teams that are flat-out scary good,” James said. “We wanted to do that because we wanted to test ourselves and see how good we could become.

“To do that, we knew we needed to go out and play some teams that frankly were better than us — older, bigger, stronger than us — and see how hard we were willing to compete.”

Northwood starts seniors at only 5 of the 22 total offensive and defensive positions, and all are linemen. His offensive skill-position players are a balanced all-junior group that operates the Rangers' run-heavy wishbone attack somewhat by committee.

The top ground-gainer in the rotation is Zach Bermejo (90 carries, 718 yards, 15 touchdowns). Next is Mike Prothero (68 carries, 387 yards), who is also the team's top tackler (78) as a linebacker. Jake Pressley, who leads the team in interceptions at safety, has rushed 42 times for 382 yards and scored five TDs.

“Sometimes you maybe want to get more carries, but it's a team sport, and it's better to have more people with you,” Prothero said. “It's good winning a third straight TAAC title, for these seniors going out and with the freshmen and juniors coming up. We've got a bunch of good things to look forward to.

Northwood's Mike Prothero brings down Toledo Christian's David Westmeyer. Prothero leads the Rangers with 78 tackles. Northwood's Mike Prothero brings down Toledo Christian's David Westmeyer. Prothero leads the Rangers with 78 tackles.
JETTA FRASER Enlarge

“It's kind of ironic going 9-1 last year and not getting in, and then this year maybe going 7-3 and getting in.”

The key blocker is 6-1, 237-pound fullback Corey Jones, who has scored four TDs.

“Stat-wise nobody really stands out, but we've had a bunch of different guys play well,” James said. “They share the load. Some weeks they'd each probably like to get a few more carries, but they're good team guys and they don't let that interfere with the success of the team, and they all block well for each other.”

Quarterback Erik Russell has completed 34 of 59 passes for 396 yards and five TDs, and has scored seven rushing TDs.

Junior John Romstadt is the team's top receiver with 12 catches for 171 yards. Bermejo has 11 receptions for 164 yards.

Joining Prothero and Pressley as defensive stat leaders are sophomore safety Rick Hartley, who is second in tackles at 54, and senior defensive end Joe Wiskochil, who tops the Rangers in sacks with eight.

“We've pretty much just worked harder,” Prothero said of the late-season improvement. “Even though we lost a lot of good seniors, we've stepped it up, and we've had some freshmen [three starters] step up and became pretty handy in our success this year.

“With the younger players it looked like they weren't really going to do much, but they stuck it out and stepped up and showed what they're made out of.”

The offensive line is anchored by senior tackles Andrew Pietras and Kyle Artino, and the defensive front is headed up by senior tackles Drew Minarcin and Max Tunison.

“It was kind of frustrating at first because it seemed like so much to handle with our small senior class,” Pietras said of the team's progression. “But we adjusted to it, and we seniors took the role of kind of showing them what to do.

“The newer guys were a little slow [developing] during two-a-days, but they bring a good energy to the field. They did well in middle school where they won a lot of games, and they came in ready and knowing how to win.”

“Those guys have really led the charge for us up front,” James said of his senior leaders.

This group has helped Northwood capture its seventh TAAC crown in its ninth season in the conference. The Rangers are 45-3 in TAAC play since arriving in 2001.

“Obviously we're in position for at least a tie, but that's not what we're after,” James said. “We want anoutright title. Last week was one we needed to win, and now we're on to this week. So, there's not a lot of celebrating going on just yet.”

Contact Steve Junga at:sjunga@theblade.comor 419-724-6461.



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